Local ski activist and family friend Lars Spurkland passed away this morning.
Taking a pause mid descent with Lars and Corky Still on Captain's Chair last Spring.
One of my most memorable times in the mountains was early on in my climbing career with Lars. And in some ways, it is a miracle that either of us survived it.
Late April 2003. Unseasonably warm temps (90 degrees in Talkeetna) and a winter snowpack combined to result in very unstable cornices. Lars and I, pretty inexperienced at the time, were attempting an alpine style ascent of Foraker's SE ridge via the SW toe.
The snow was unconsolidated, the cornices were large, and there was no opportunity for any decent pro in this particular spot. 'The big guy' Lars was following in my tracks. An estimated 60 foot long hunk of cornice 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep broke out from beneath his feet. I suppose not surprising that he triggered it while I had not while using the same steps as Lars has always outweighed me. I heard a yell and the air around me depressurized as the falling snow left a vacuum behind it.
It was one of those special moments when everything is on the line and there is only opportunity for one decision, one action before choice is taken away by the continuing flow of events.
The rope ripped through the unconsolidated snow, cutting further into the remaining cornice as I threw myself into self arrest just barely on the opposing slope of this very narrow & corniced ridge. I knew, just knew, that we were both going to die and I imagine Lars did too. But somehow I was able to hold Lars as he fell, buffeted by masses of falling snow. It shouldn't have worked. I think at the time that Lars weighed about 215, and each of our packs weighed about 60. I think he fell about 40 feet. If it wasn't for the rope cutting into the cornice, thereby decreasing the force of his fall it would be a physical impossibility.
10 minutes went by with me digging deep with everything I had just to maintain my self arrest position with no opportunity to build an anchor. 10 minutes of absolute early morning Alaska Range silence, with no backup and no anchor.
But then the impossible happened and Lars' weight began to lift. Eventually I gained enough confidence in his ability to move, still with no communication, that I flipped into a snowseat belay and belayed him up as he climbed. Finally he pulled on to the ridge crest, unharmed but badly shaken. He had taken a large inverted fall above 2000 feet of air.
It was one of those experiences that that can have a strong effect on a friendship or climbing partnership. Lars and I had skiied together many times but had never climbed together prior to this. His brother Jan, whom I had climbed Denali with several years earlier, had been planning to be the third on the trip but was unable to come (I think due to knee injury).
It could have been a cool replay of our childhood ski and sled adventures, playing with lincoln logs in the evenings in some kind of adult modality. I think we would have chosen a different line, something we could ski (perhaps the Sultana ridge), and things would have been safer in those strange conditions. As it was I think the experience acted as a bit of a wedge for Lars and I, and we didn't recreate much together again until I got lucky enough to get a ski day in on Captain's Chair with Lars and Corky Still last Spring. They were really fit from their season of coaching high school nordic and I struggled to keep up on the long skin with my massive skis.
Nonetheless, we made great time, and each chose our own steep line on the first half of the descent. Corky and Lars took steep lines through the rocks while I skied the also steep chute we had bootpacked, coming in from the side.
I don't know why Lars and I were allowed to survive on that day in April 2003 but I know that our lives and the lives of all those we love would be less rich due to our passage. I am glad that Lars was OK, and impressed with who he grew up to be. And damn, could that dude tele ski. It almost made me guilty to have my heels locked down seeing him ski those steeps freeheel like it was nothing. Thanks Lars for changing my life. I'm glad you got another 11 years.